theocracy's fear of females.
By AZAR NAFISI
Issue date: 02.22.99
Post date: 02.04.99
I would like to begin with a painting. It is Edgar Degas's Dancers
Practicing at the Bar, as reproduced in an artbook recently
published in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Under the heading "Spatial
Organization," the book gives a two-paragraph explanation of Degas's
placement of the ballerinas: "The two major forms are crowded into
the upper right quadrant of the painting, leaving the rest of the
canvas as openspace...."
So far, everything seems normal. But, like most things in Iran
today, it is not. Upon closer inspection, there is something disturbingly
wrong with the illustration accompanying this description, something
that makes both the painting and the serious tone of its discussion
absurdly unreal: the ballerinas, you see, have been air-brushed
out. Instead, what meet the eye are an empty space, the floor, the
blank wall, and the bar. Like so many other images of women in Iran,
the ballerinas have been censored.
Of course, the irony is that, by removing the dancers, the censors
have succeeded only in making them the focus of our attention. Through
their absence, the dancers are rendered glaringly present. In this
way, Degas's painting is emblematic of a basic paradox of life in
Iran, on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the 1979 Islamic
Revolution. On the one hand, the ruling Islamic regime has succeeded
in completely repressing Iranian women. Women are forbidden to go
out in public unless they are covered by clothing that conceals
everything but their hands and faces. At all government institutions,
universities, and airports, there are separate entrances for women,
where they are searched for lipstick and other weapons of mass destruction.
No infraction is too small to escape notice. At the university where
I used to teach, one woman was penalized for "laughter of a giggling
kind." And, just recently, a female professor was expelled because
her wrist had shown from under her sleeve while she was writing
on the blackboard.
Yet, while these measures are meant to render women invisible
and powerless, they are paradoxically making women tremendously
visible and powerful. By attempting to control and shape every aspect
of women's lives--and by staking its legitimacy on the Iranian people's
supposed desire for this control--the regime has unwittingly handed
women a powerful weapon: every private act or gesture in defiance
of official rules is now a strong political statement. Meanwhile,
because the regime's extreme regulation of women's lives necessarily
intrudes on the private lives of men as well (whose every interaction
with women is closely governed), the regime has alienated not just
women but many men who initially supported the revolution.
This tension between the Islamic ruling elite and Iranian society
at large has been vastly underestimated by Western observers of
Iran. In part this is because, over the past 20 years, American
analysts and academics, as well as the Iranian exile community,
have had little or no access to Iran. Thus they have relied unduly
on the image presented by Iran's ruling clerics.
At present that image is one of increased openness--as symbolized
by the election of the moderate cleric Mohammed Khatami to the presidency
back in 1997. Recently, for example, CNN cheerfully informed us
that, after 20 years, the Islamic Republic has begun to show Hollywood
movies. What CNN failed to mention was that Iranian television's
version of, for example, Mary Poppins showed less than 45
minutes of the actual film. All portions featuring women dancing
or singing were cut out and instead described by an Iranian narrator.
In Popeye, all scenes involving Olive Oyl, whose person and
whose relationship with Popeye are considered lewd, were excised
from the cartoon. Meanwhile, even as the regime purports to have
softened its hostile stance toward the United States, it has not
softened the punishment meted out to Iranians who dare show an interest
in American culture. In fact, soon after he was appointed, Khatami's
new education minister issued a new directive forbidding students
to bring material bearing the Latin alphabet or other "decadent
Western symbols" to class.
However, these are just the mildest examples of the many ways
in which the new openness that characterizes Khatami's rule has
been accompanied by increased repression. The brief spring that
followed his victory--during which freedom of speech flourished
in public demonstrations and new newspapers--was brought to an end
with an abrupt crackdown. The government has since banned most of
the new papers and harassed or jailed their editors. (They have
since been released.) Many of the progressive clergymen who took
advantage of the opening to protest the current legal system were
also arrested and, in one case, defrocked. The regime has also taken
the opportunity to clamp down on members of Iran's Bahai minority.
Meanwhile, the parliament has passed two of the most reactionary
laws on women in the republic's history. The first requires that
all medical facilities be segregated by sex. The second effectively
bans publication of women's pictures on the cover of magazines as
well as any form of writing that "creates conflict between the sexes
and is opposed to the Islamic laws."
This past fall, two nationalist opposition leaders, Daryush and
Parvaneh Forouhar, were murdered, and three prominent writers disappeared.
All three were later found dead. Many Iranians were outraged, and
tens of thousands attended the Forouhars' funeral in a tacit protest.
The government's initial response gave these Iranians some reason
for hope. President Khatami condemned the killings and set up a
committee to investigate them. The committee's first conclusion
was that those responsible were members of the Information Ministry.
However, within days, the committee was proffering a different story,
alleging that, on second thought, the murderers were just part of
a rogue group within the ministry and that the killings were not
political. The committee also has yet to name the killers--much
less bring them to justice. Furious, Iranians have flooded the progressive
newspapers with angry calls and letters.
To the extent that the Western media have taken note of such incidents,
they have mainly cast them as the symptoms of a struggle between
the moderate Khatami and his reactionary fellow clerics. More often
than not, the media portray acts of repression as measures taken
by the hard-liners against Khatami--as if he, and not the people
who were actually murdered or oppressed, was the real victim.
This simplistic portrayal of Khatami versus the hard-liners completely
misunderstands the current situation in Iran. Khatami does not represent
the opposition in Iran--and he cannot. True, in order to win a popular
mandate he had to present an agenda for tearing down some of the
fundamental pillars of the Islamic Republic. But in order to even
be eligible for election he had to have impeccable political and
religious credentials. In other words, he had to be, and clearly
is, committed to upholding the very ideology his constituents so
Khatami's tenure, then, has revealed the key dilemma facing the
Islamic regime. In order to maintain the people's support, the government
must reform, but it cannot reform without negating itself. The result
has been a kind of chaos, a period marked by the arbitrariness of
its events. One day a new freedom is granted; the next day an old
freedom is rescinded. Both events are symptoms of the deep struggle
under way in Iran today, not just between Khatami and the reactionary
clerics, but between the people of Iran and all representatives
of the government. And at the center of this struggle is the battle
over women's rights.
Asecond image comes to mind--a woman from the past, Dr. Farokhroo
Parsa. Like the ballerinas, her presence is felt through her absence.
I try to conjure her in my mind's eye. Parsa had given up her medical
practice to become the principal of the girls' school in Tehran
I attended as a teenager. Slowly her pudgy, stern face looms before
me, just as it did when she used to stand outside the school inspecting
the students as we entered the building. Her smile was always accompanied
by the shadow of a frown, as if she were afraid that we would take
advantage of that smile and betray the vision she had created for
her school. That vision, her life's goal, was for us, her girls,
to be "truly" educated. Under the Shah, Parsa rose to become one
of the first Iranian women to be elected to the Iranian parliament,
and then, in 1968, she became Iran's first female Cabinet minister,
in charge of higher education. In that post Parsa tried not only
to raise the quality of education but to purge the school textbooks
of sexist images of women.
When the Shah was ousted in 1979 by a diverse group of opposition
figures that included Muslim clerics, leftists, and nationalists,
Parsa was one of the many high functionaries of the previous government
whom the revolutionaries summarily tried and executed. At her trial
she was charged with "corruption on earth," "warring against God,"
and "expansion of prostitution." She was allowed no defense attorney
and was sentenced by hooded judges.
At the time, the new revolutionary regime took a great deal of
pride in its executions, even advertising them and printing pictures
of its victims in the newspapers afterward. But Parsa's photograph
was never published. Even more exceptional, in that exceptional
time, was the manner of her death. Before being killed she was put
in a sack. The only logic behind such an act could be the claim
that Islam forbade a man to touch the body of a woman, even during
her death. There is some debate about the method of her execution.
Some say she was beaten, others that she was stoned, still others
that she was machine-gunned. Nonetheless, the central image of her
murder remains the same: that of a living, breathing woman made
shapeless, formless, in order to preserve the "virtue" and "dignity"
of her executioners.
I had not thought of Parsa for many years until the news of her
execution resurrected her in my memory. Since then, time and again,
I have tried to imagine her moment of death. But, while I can see
her living face with its smile and frown, I cannot envision her
features at the specific moment when that smile and frown forever
disappeared in that dark sack. Could she have divined how, not long
afterward, her students and her students' students would also be
made shapeless and invisible not in death but in life?
For this, on a broader scale, is precisely what the clerics have
done to all Iranian women. Almost immediately upon seizing power,
Ayatollah Khomeini began taking back women's hard-won rights. He
justified his actions by claiming that he was actually restoring
women's dignity and rescuing them from the degrading and
dangerous ideas that been imposed on them by Western imperialists
and their agents, among which he included the Shah.
In making this claim, the Islamic regime not only robbed Iran's
women of their rights; it robbed them of their history. For the
true story of women's liberation in Iran is not that of an outside
imperialist force imposing alien ideas, or--as even some opponents
of the Islamic regime contend--that of a benevolent Shah bestowing
rights upon his passive female subjects. No, the advent of women's
liberation in Iran was the result of a homegrown struggle on the
part of Iranian women themselves for the creation of a modern nation--a
fight that reached back more than a century. At every step of the
way, scores of women, unassuming, without much sense of the magnitude
of their pioneering roles, had created new spaces, the spaces my
generation and I had taken for granted. This is not to say that
Iranian women--including those of my own generation--never made
mistakes, never wavered in their commitment to freedom. But the
fact that Iran's women were fallible does not change the fact that
so many of them were vital leaders in Iran's long struggle for modernization.
Probably the first of these leaders was a poet who lived in the
middle of the last century, a woman named Tahereh who was said to
be stunningly beautiful. At the time, Iran was ruled by the despotic
and semi-feudal Qajar dynasty, whose reign was supported by fundamentalist
Muslim clerics. The alliance between the mullahs and the despotic
regime prompted various groups to begin questioning the basic tenets
of Islam. One such group were the Babis--a dissident movement of
Islamic thinkers who were the precursors to the Bahais--who eventually
broke with Islam to create a new religion, and who are the victims
of vicious persecution by the Iranian government to this day. Tahereh
was one of the Babis' most effective leaders. She was among the
first to demand that religion be modernized. She debated her ideas
with men and took the unprecedented step of leaving her husband
and children in order to tour the country preaching her ideas. Tahereh
was also the first woman to unveil publicly. Perhaps not surprisingly,
she paid for her views with her life. In 1852, she was secretly
taken to a garden and strangled. Her body was thrown into a well.
She was 36.
As Iran began to have increasing contact with the West, many sectors
of the population--intellectuals, minorities, clerics, and even
ordinary people--became increasingly aware of their nation's backwardness
as compared to the West. From the mid-nineteenth century these forces
continually struggled with Iran's rulers over the degree to which
Iran should close the gap by modernizing itself. By 1908, this struggle
had come to a head, with the ruling Shah threatening to undermine
the constitution that the modernizers had forced his predecessor
to agree to accept in 1906. The new Shah soon began bombarding the
Once again, women were at the forefront. Many of them actually
fought in the violent skirmishes that ensued, sometimes disguised
as men. They even marched to the parliament, carrying weapons under
their veils and, once inside, demanded that the men holed up there
hand over the jobs if they could not protect the constitution.
The constitutionalists prevailed, and, although the constitution
contained no language advancing women's rights, the next 20 years
saw significant progress in this area thanks to the determined efforts
of countless women. Leafing through the books about the women's
movements from this era, one is amazed at their members' courage
and daring. So many names and images crowd the pages of these books.
I pick one at random: Sediqeh Dowlatabadi, daughter of a learned
and religious man from an old and highly respected family, who was
the editor of a monthly journal for women. In the 1910s she was
beaten and detained for three months for establishing a girls' school
in Isfahan. One can only guess the degree of her rage and resentment
against her adversaries by her will, in which she proclaimed: "I
will never forgive women who visit my grave veiled." It was only
appropriate that those who murdered Farokhroo Parsa should also
not tolerate Dowlatabadi, even in her death. In August 1980, Islamic
vigilantes demolished her tomb and the tombs of her father and brother
who, although men of religion, had supported her activities.
It was an American, Morgan Shuster, who best appreciated the efforts
of Iranian women during Dowlatabadi's period. "The Persian women
since 1907 had become almost at a bound the most progressive, not
to say radical, in the world," he wrote in his 1912 book The
Strangling of Persia. "That this statement upsets the ideas
of centuries makes no difference. It is the fact."
As part of their push toward modernization, the women of Iran
also supported a general movement in favor of greater cultural pluralism.
Writers and poets led heated and exciting debates on the need to
change the old modes of artistic and literary expression, with many
calling for a "democratization" of the Persian language. New literary
and artistic forms were introduced to Iran.
The reactionary elements in the clerical ranks and other supporters
of despotism rightly recognized that the ideas in these cultural
products represented a threat to their dominance and immediately
attacked them as "poisonous vapors" coming from the West to destroy
the minds of Iranian youth. To the mullahs the idea of women's rights
fell in the same category--and they opposed them in the same breath.
Two prominent clerics, Sheikh Fazolah Nuri and Sayyid 'Ali Shushtari--mentors
of Ayatollah Khomeini--even issued a fatwa against women's education.
But the charge that Iran's women's rights activists--and the modernizers
in general--were agents of the West is patently unjust. To be sure,
they were keenly interested in bringing in Western ideas. But this
desire stemmed from their acute awareness of Iran's shortcomings
and their belief that Iran's road to independence and prosperity
lay in understanding and internalizing the best of the Western systems
of government and thought. It also meant fighting back when the
Western nations began brutally exploiting Iran's wealth and natural
resources. And Iranian women were at the forefront of this battle--for
instance, organizing a large-scale boycott of foreign textiles in
favor of Iranian-manufactured products and frequently demonstrating
in support of national independence. In fact, it is safe to say
that, more than any other group, women, the same women who were
several decades later demonized as the agents of imperialism, symbolized
the nationalistic and anti-imperialist mood of those times.
Over the ensuing years, the modernizers gained ground. Whatever
else might be said about him, Shah Reza Pahlevi, who came to power
in 1925, was a committed modernizer who in 1936 even attempted to
mandate that all women cease wearing veils. When this failed due
to popular outrage, he worked to encourage unveiling in other ways.
His son, Shah Muhammad Reza, who was in power at the time of the
1979 revolution, continued in this tradition--for example, granting
women the right to vote in 1963. (Of course, it should be remembered
that, contrary to the claims of both the Shahs and the clerics who
opposed them, these actions merely ratified the progress that had
been achieved by Iranian women themselves. Long before the mandatory
unveiling law was imposed and long after that law was annulled,
scores of Iranian women chose to throw off their veils of their
By 1979, women were active in all areas of life in Iran. The number
of girls attending schools was on the rise. The number of female
candidates for the universities had risen sevenfold during the first
half of the 1970s. Women were encouraged to participate in areas
normally closed to them through a quota system that gave preferential
treatment to eligible girls. Women were scholars, police officers,
judges, pilots, and engineers--active in every field except the
clergy. In 1978, 333 of 1,660 candidates for local councils were
women. Twenty-two were elected to the parliament; two to the Senate.
There were one female Cabinet minister, three subCabinet undersecretaries
(including the second-highest ranking officials in the Ministries
of Labor and Mines and Industries), one governor, one ambassador,
and five mayors.
That Khomeini ousted them by resorting to the clergy's old tactic
of accusing them of betraying Iranian culture and tradition was
not surprising. What was surprising was that the leftist members
of his revolutionary coalition went along. The leftists had traditionally
appeared to support women's rights. However, this support never
ran very deep. The leftists operated under a totalitarian mindset
that was ultimately far more at ease with the rigid rules espoused
by the reactionary clerics than with the pluralistic approach favored
by the women's movement. Thus, when the Ayatollah began his crackdown,
he had the leftists' full support.
Most Iranian women, on the other hand, were not so pliant. Another
image surfaces--this one a photograph that appeared in an American
magazine, I can't remember which. I found it recently among the
scraps I had kept from the early days of the revolution. It was
taken on a snowy day in March 1979 and reveals tens of thousands
of shouting women massed into one of Tehran's wide avenues. Their
expressions are arresting, but that is not what is most striking
about this photo. No, what draws my attention is how, in contrast
to today's pictures of women in Iran--depressing images of drab
figures cloaked in black cloth--this photograph is filled with color!
The women are dressed in different shades--vibrant reds, bright
blues--almost as if they had purposely tried to make themselves
stand out as much as possible. In fact, perhaps this was their objective,
because, on that March day, these women had gathered to express
their resistance to--and their outrage at--Ayatollah Khomeini's
attempt to make them invisible.
Some days prior, the Ayatollah had launched the first phase of
his clampdown on women's rights. First, he had announced the annulment
of the Family Protection Law that had, since 1967, helped women
work outside the home and given them more rights in their marriages.
In its place, the traditional Islamic law, known as Sharia, would
apply. In one fell swoop the Ayatollah had set Iran back nearly
a century. Under the new system, the age of consent for girls has
been changed from 18 to nine. Yet no woman no matter what age can
marry for the first time without the consent of her father, and
no married woman can leave the country without her husband's written
and notarized consent. Adultery is punishable by stoning. On the
witness stand it takes the testimony of two women to equal that
of one man. If a Muslim man kills a Muslim woman and is then sentenced
to death, her family must first pay him compensation for his life.
As if all this were not enough, Khomeini also announced the reimposition
of the veil--decreeing that no woman could go to work unless she
is fully covered.
The March 8 demonstration began as a commemoration of the International
Day of the Woman. But, as hundreds of women poured into the streets
of Tehran, its character spontaneously changed into a full-fledged
protest march against the new regime's measures. "Freedom is neither
Eastern nor Western; it is global," the women shouted. "Down with
the reactionaries! Tyranny in any form is condemned!"
The March 8 event led to further protests. On the third day, a
huge demonstration took place in front of the Ministry of Justice.
Declarations of support from different associations and organizations
were read, and an eight-point manifesto was issued. Among other
things, it called for gender equality in all areas of public and
private life as well as a guarantee of fundamental freedoms for
both men and women. It also demanded that "the decision over women's
clothing, which is determined by custom and the exigencies of geographical
location, should be left to women."
In the face of such widespread protest, the Ayatollah backed down.
His son-in-law emerged to say that Khomeini had merely meant to
encourage women to dress "respectably" in the workplace. But the
Ayatollah's retreat proved only temporary. Even as he was officially
relenting on his proclamation on the veil, his vigilantes continued
to attack unveiled women in public--often by throwing acid at them.
And the Ayatollah soon proceeded to reinstate the veiling laws--this
time taking care to move step by step. In the summer of 1980, his
regime made the veil mandatory in government offices. Later, it
prohibited women from shopping without a veil. As they had before,
many women resisted and protested these acts. And, once again, they
were attacked and beaten by government goons and denounced by the
leftist "progressive" forces. Later, the veil was made mandatory
for all women regardless of their religion, creed, or nationality.
By the early '80s, and after much violence, the regime had succeeded
in making the veil the uniform of all Iranian women.
Yet, even as it enabled the regime to consolidate its control
over every aspect of its subjects' lives, this act firmly established
the separation between the regime and the Iranian population. In
order to implement its new laws, the regime created special vice
squads that patrol the cities on the lookout for any citizen guilty
of a "moral offense." The guards are allowed to raid not just public
places but private homes, in search of alcoholic drinks, "decadent"
music or videos, people playing cards, sexually mixed parties, or
unveiled women. Those arrested go to special courts and jails. The
result was that ordinary Iranian citizens--both men and women--immediately
began to feel the presence and intervention of the state in their
most private daily affairs. These officers were not there to arrest
criminals who threatened the lives or safety of the populace; they
were there to control the populace, to take people away, and to
flog and imprison them. Bazaars and shopping malls were surrounded
and raided; young girls and boys were arrested for walking together
in the streets, for not wearing the proper clothing. Nail polish
and Reebok shoes were treated as lethal weapons. Young girls were
subjected to virginity tests. Soon, even people who originally supported
the regime began to question it.
The government had claimed that only a handful of "Westernized"
women had opposed its laws, but now, 20 years after the revolution,
its most outspoken and daring opponents are the very children of
revolution, many of whom were the most active members of Islamic
students' associations. To cite just one statistic, of the 802 men
and women the vice squads detained in Tehran in July 1993, 80 percent
were under the age of 20. The suppression of culture in the name
of defending against the West's "cultural invasion" and the attempts
at coercive "Islamization" have made these youths almost obsessed
with the culture they are being deprived of.
The regime has also succeeded in alienating many of the traditionalist
women who had initially supported it. Committed religious believers,
these women had long felt uncomfortable with the modernization and
secularization that had taken place in Iran during the century leading
up to the revolution. So, when Ayatollah Khomeini first arrived
on the scene, they welcomed him with open arms. So powerful an ally
were they that Khomeini, who had vehemently protested when women
were granted the right to vote in 1963, decided against repealing
it so that he could rely on these women's votes.
After the revolution, these women began to venture into the workplace--which
they now deemed sufficiently hospitable to their traditionalist
lifestyle. There they encountered those secular women who had not
been a part of the Shah's government and who had therefore been
allowed to remain in their jobs so that the regime could benefit
from their know-how. As time went by, the traditionalist women began
to find that they actually had quite a lot in common with their
secular counterparts, who they had previously criticized as Westernized.
The line between "us" and "them" gradually blurred.
One issue that solidified this bond was the law. For some traditional
women, the imposition of the veil was an affront to their religiosity--changing
what had been a freely chosen expression of religious faith into
a rote act imposed on them by the state. My grandmother was one
such woman. An intensely religious woman who never parted with her
chador, she was nonetheless outraged at those who had defiled her
religion by using violence to impose their interpretation of it
on her grandchildren. "This is not Islam!" she would insist.
Meanwhile, other traditional women felt alienated by some of the
more draconian aspects of Sharia. The debate around the Islamic
laws inevitably led to a critical reappraisal of the basic tenets
that had created them. It also led to a discussion of more fundamental
issues pertaining to the nature of male-female relations as well
as public and private spaces. The regime had changed the laws, claiming
that they were unjust, that they were products of alien rule and
exploitation. Now that the "alien rulers" were gone, these claims
were being tested. Iranian women from all walks of life were discovering
that the biggest affront to them was the law itself. It did not
protect the most basic rights of women; it violated them. As Zahra
Rahnavard, the wife of the last Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein
Musavi and an ardent Islamist, has lamented to the Iranian press:
"The Islamic government has lost the war on the hejab [veil]....
The Islamic values have failed to protect women and to win their
The incompatibility of these laws with the reality of modern Iran
thus became apparent to the more open-minded elements that had previously
supported the regime. Many of them distanced themselves from the
official policies and joined ranks with those on the "other" side.
The transformation of the editor and part of the staff of an official
women's journal, Zan-e Rooz, is a good example. They left
office in the mid-'80s and created a new magazine, Zanan,
sharply critical of many government policies and practices. They
invited secular women to participate in the publication of their
journal. Some from the ranks of clergy joined them in criticizing
the existing laws on women. Such transformations have frightened
the hard-liners into passing even more reactionary laws, further
suppressing the progressive elements working for creation of a civil
society and, in the process, fueling a vicious cycle.
The consequence has been that the regime has become far more dependent
on women for its survival than women are on the regime. The regime
can make all sorts of deals with the imperialist powers, even with
the Great Satan itself, but it cannot allow its women to change
the public image imposed on them: since the regime's legitimacy
rests so heavily on the notion that its rules represent the will
of the Iranian people, the presence of even one unveiled woman in
the streets has become more dangerous than the grenades of an underground
opposition. And Iranian women appear to have taken notice. Young
girls in particular have turned the veil into an instrument of protest.
They wear it in attractive and provocative ways. They leave part
of their hair showing from under their scarves or allow colorful
clothing to show underneath their uniforms. They walk in a defiant
manner. And in doing so they have become a constant reminder to
the ruling elite that it is fighting a losing battle.
I would like to end with a final image--this one a joyous one
that negates the other mutilated half-images of women I have described.
It happened in 1997, when the Iranian soccer team defeated Australia
in the World Cup qualifying tournament. The government had repeatedly
warned against any secular-style celebrations. But, as soon as the
game was over, millions of Iranians spilled into the streets, dancing
and singing to loud music. They called it the "football revolution."
The most striking feature of this "revolution" was the presence
of thousands of women who broke through police barricades to enter
the football stadium, from which they are normally banned. Some
even celebrated by taking off their veils. Time and again I replay
not the actions but the atmosphere of jubilation and defiance surrounding
this event. The Iranian nation, having no political or national
symbols or events to celebrate as its own, chose the most nonpolitical
of all events, soccer, and turned it into a strong political statement.
As usual, the Western press described these events as a message
to the hard-liners from Khatami's supporters. But the main addressees
of the football revolution's message were not the hardliners; they
had heard the message many times before and had ignored it. If anyone
were to learn any lessons from this event it should have been the
more "moderate" faction. It was clear then, and it has become clearer
since thanks to subsequent demonstrations, protest meetings, and
publications, that the majority of Iranians see the current Islamic
regime as the main obstacle to the creation of a civil society.
It is this problem that faces President Khatami today. He has
impressed the West by proclaiming himself a man who stands for the
rule of law. But the law in the Islamic Republic is what most Iranians
today are protesting against. In reaction the hard-liners have become
increasingly repressive; the small openings and freedoms enjoyed
by the Iranian people at the start of President Khatami's victory
have come with arbitrary crackdowns in which ordinary citizens are
stoned for adultery; writers and prominent members of the opposition
are not only jailed but murdered; Bahais are deprived of their most
basic human rights; and the revolutionary guards and morality police
treat the Iranian citizens as strictly as ever.
But these actions are taken from a position of weakness, not strength.
Unlike in the past, repressive measures have failed to quell the
protests. Side by side with the daily struggle that has turned the
business of living into a protracted war, there are public debates,
protest meetings, and demonstrations, reminders of those sunny-snowy
days 20 years ago. And, just as in those days past, women are once
again playing a decisive role.
In fact, there is an almost artistic symmetry to the way Iranian
women at the end of the twentieth century, as at its beginning,
are at the center of the larger struggle for the creation of an
open and pluralistic society in Iran. The future twists and turns
of this struggle are uncertain, but of one thing I am sure: a time
will come when the Degas ballerinas return to their rightful place.
a former professor of English at the University of Tehran, is currently
a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced
International Studies. She is writing a book on the subversive role
of the Western literary canon in Iran.